Animal Rights

Here Comes the Evil Cass Sunstein!

| by Mat Thomas

Obama’s prospective “Regulatory Czar” will ban all use of animals…according to meat, dairy and egg industry hacks, that is.

You may want to start unfurling those mothballed “Mission Accomplished!” banners and planning end-of-the-movement celebrations, because, after many long years of tireless effort to abolish humanity’s abuse of other species, we are finally and definitively about to win the war against animal exploitation! Apparently, the United States is on the very cusp of an unprecedented Golden Age of Animal Rights when meat products will completely disappear from supermarkets and be replaced by tofu imitations, fur salons will be transformed into hemp-and-pleather fashion boutiques, and vivisection laboratories will be converted into homeopathic apothecaries. It’s literally a vegan’s lifelong dream come true!

At least, that’s the radically compassionate world that animal enterprise apologists at the Center for Consumer Freedom (CCF) and the American Conservative Union (ACU) warn we’re headed for if Congress approves President Obama’s nefarious nomination of Cass Sunstein as ostensibly omnipotent Administrator of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA)*. Corporate propagandists are trying their damndest these days to demonize Sunstein, an accomplished attorney who befriended Obama when they were both professors at the University of Chicago Law School, primarily because he is a vegetarian and the co-author of Animal Rights: Current Debates and New Directions (among many other books). It is therefore not so surprising that Sunstein’s appointment was recently blocked (or at least delayed) per the objections of Republican Senator Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, who (erroneously) claimed the nominee “has said that animals ought to have the right to sue folks,” and worried that giving Sunstein regulatory oversight would affect “a number of other issues relative to agriculture,” which would surely rankle many of his key campaign contributors whose fortunes rise or fall with the value of beef, pork and poultry shares.

The root of Sen. Chambliss’ first concern is a quote from Sunstein’s aforementioned tome which reads: “[A]nimals should be permitted to bring suit, with human beings as their representatives, to prevent violations of current law … Any animals that are entitled to bring suit would be represented by (human) counsel, who would owe guardian like (sic) obligations and make decisions, subject to those obligations, on their clients’ behalf.” However, despite Chambliss’ unease, this statement (consistently taken out of context by Sunstein’s opponents) does not entail granting animals explicit rights under the law, as journalist Julian Sanchez explains: “Sunstein was suggesting that in order to enforce animal cruelty laws already on the books, private parties might be given standing to bring civil actions against those who violate these existing laws, rather than leaving it up to government prosecutors to investigate and make cases. Judges could order plaintiffs to pay defendants attorneys (sic) fees in order to deter frivolous suits.”

Put this way, Sunstein’s proposal sounds “very conventional and a little boring,” as the candidate himself noted during a May 12 confirmation hearing before the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee (which approved his nomination). To Chambliss’ credit, the Senator wants to hear Sunstein out in person before deciding whether to oppose or support his appointment. Sunstein will have an opportunity to more fully explain the meaning and implications of his views in a meeting with Chambliss and other Senators sometime this month.

However, some of Sunstein’s shriller detractors have already made up their “minds” about Sunstein, and are doing everything they can to make sure others see the horns they’ve so helpfully painted on his head. These masters of delusion also nonsensically insist that the relatively obscure post of OIRA Administrator wields a level of influence that vastly exceeds the authority of any other U.S. government official — up to and including the President. Here are some recent quotes that express the tenor and suppositions underlying the anti-confirmation viewpoint:

“Sunstein’s work could spell the end of animal agriculture, retail sales of meat and dairy foods, hunting and fishing, biomedical research, pet ownership, zoos and aquariums, traveling circuses, and countless other things Americans take for granted… Americans don’t realize that the next four years could be full of bizarre initiatives plucked from the wildest dreams of the animal-rights fringe. Think about every outrageous idea PETA and the Humane Society of the United States have ever had, and imagine them all having the force of federal law.”

David Martosko, Director of Research, the Center for Consumer Freedom

“If confirmed by the U.S. Senate, Sunstein will have unchecked power to severely limit or end hunting freedom and gun ownership in America. [...] Sunstein will have the power to write regulations dealing with the length of hunting seasons, Federal land use, deciding which species are ‘endangered,’ draconian noise and environmental standards at shooting ranges, taxes on guns and ammunition, gun shop and gun show regulations, federal record keeping on gun purchases… And on thousands of regulations dealing with meat processing, life-saving medical research that involves animal testing, animal ‘rights,’ and much more.”

“Stop Sunstein” petition from the American Conservative Union

In the interest of journalistic objectivity, I should mention that I normally find such misguided critics infuriating, but today they just make me laugh because they’ve clearly gone over the deep end. I mean, yeah, the CCF’s whole reason for being is to shill for greedy corporations, and Sunstein is not the first Obama appointee opposed by the ACU, but the fact that these paranoid sociopaths seriously believe the OIRA Administrator has “unchecked power” to outlaw guns, hunting and meat is so ludicrously beyond even the remotest realm of possibility that it makes their shtick comedic gold. The only reasons to even pay the slightest bit of attention to such hyperbolic right wing idiocy are to revel in its unintended satirical value, and to make sure decision-makers understand how utterly moronic it is.

Perhaps I’m only snickering now because in the process of being so obviously on the defensive, the animal killers have inadvertently exposed their most vulnerable weak spots — mainly, their tendency to become irrational when their dominance is threatened. In reality, if Sunstein is appointed, society’s treatment of animals is not going to fundamentally change: the OIRA Administrator’s job is definitely not to create new laws, but to basically ensure that U.S. regulatory agencies (such as the EPA, USDA, etc.) comply with existing ones. At best, we can hope that Sunstein will hold these agencies accountable for breaking animal welfare statutes — which would be a first in U.S. history and something that could indeed significantly impact how animal exploitation industries operate. However, according to an Op-Ed by Greg Henderson, editor of the agribusiness journal Drovers, they’re much more worried about how Sunstein’s confirmation could allow pesky animal advocates to file so-called “nuisance suits” against factory farms:

“Sunstein’s views on animal rights could be disastrous for all of livestock agriculture, not because stockmen routinely abuse animals but because such legal remedies could be used by animal rights activists to initiate nuisance suits. Assuming current animal abuse laws remain the same, activists could successfully tie up livestock producers with legal procedures for years. And once the door is opened a crack to allow legal action by animals, it would only be a matter of time before the interpretation of abuse comes into question. For instance, are animals fed corn abused? Some animal rights advocates believe they are. What about cows living on the range without shelter? Are they abused if they don’t have access to a heated barn? Sunstein’s views represent those on the fringe now, but the actions we take now may determine if those views are mainstream in the future.”

While Henderson’s analysis is at least somewhat more pragmatic than that of his colleagues, it still reveals a fundamental distortion of perception. Take his claim that factory farms do not “routinely abuse animals” — it’s demonstrably false. Consider, for example, this small sampling of standard agribusiness practices, all of which are perfectly legal in the U.S. and used to enslave billions of animals a year:

If you amputated half of your dog’s tail without anaesthetic or slashed your cat’s throat while she was wide awake, you would be rightly charged with animal abuse, but Henderson (like all “stockmen”) implies that farm animals are somehow subject to completely different physical laws than companion animals. Of course, his job as an agribusiness hustler is the same as the CCF’s and the ACU’s: to reframe the debate so that the concerns of animal advocates appear not as legitimate ethical arguments against torturing and killing billions of living beings for money, but rather mere quibbling over some “minor” discomforts animals endure in the course of their otherwise supposedly idyllic lives on factory farms. The best in the business do it unconsciously, automatically, crafting messages as though there were no other way of thinking about things — because they never do.

But this narrow-minded strategy won’t work forever because as people learn more about the routine cruelties animals suffer on modern farms, the more disgusted they become with those who perpetrate abuse and the less they believe their lies. It is inevitable that, in the coming years and decades, increasing numbers of people will undoubtedly see the truth — and that, over the long haul, animal advocates’ core values will become mainstream. Sunstein’s nomination is just one more sign that this is already happening, and one more crucial step in the right direction.

* The Senate confirmed Sunstein on September 10, 2009